Philosophy Weekend: The Trunk

Existential

There are three misconceptions about philosophy that I'd like to clear up today.  The first is that it's an academic discipline, carried out by professors and graduate students in quarterlies and journals while the rest of us breathlessly await reports of their findings.  Actually, many people like me who care about philosophy don't pay any attention to the back-and-forth of insular academic journals.  If anything useful emerges from one of these journals, we figure, we'll eventually read about it on a blog. This doesn't happen, we notice, very often.

It is a fact that many professors call themselves philosophers, and that some top professors at top colleges consider themselves very important philosophers.  But there is little evidence that any academic work is getting noticed in the real world, and philosophy is thoroughly concerned with the real world.  It's a telling fact that the most popular American philosopher of the past hundred years, Ayn Rand (who I have been knocking myself out here to refute) was not an academic, and also that the most popular European philosopher of the past two hundred years, Friedrich Nietzsche (who I have been knocking myself out to promote) began his career as an academic, but only managed to find a reading audience after leaving the University of Basel and slowly going insane, at the same time writing the great non-academic works that made him a star.

I hope the philosophy professors in all the colleges of the world are doing a great job teaching their students (this is, after all, the primary responsibility of a college professor).  But as for the original work they are doing, it's mostly fan-fiction as far as I can tell.  Lots of words, very little impact.

The second misconception is that philosophy is difficult or mentally challenging.  Why does it have to be?  The early Zen Buddhists were way ahead of the rest of the world on this front; they taught that the most powerful realizations arrive from confounding, not massaging, the rational mind.  Philosophy should be challenging, of course -- spiritually challenging, emotionally challenging. It should confront you to your core.  But the best philosophical writers of all time, from Plato to Rene Descartes to William James to Ludwig Wittgenstein to (again) Friedrich Nietzsche and the wrong-headed but admittedly talented Ayn Rand, wrote simple words.  I remember how Descartes's Meditations On First Philosophy knocked me off my chair when I was a freshman at college.  There was nothing complex about his arguments; to appreciate the challenge he was presenting, you merely had to open your mind to his method and follow where he led.

I can never understand why a book of philosophy should be boring or difficult.  Satori does not require fourteen-letter words or Greek characters or equations that look like integral calculus.  I can think of no clearer sign that an alleged philosopher has a muddled message than a long, painful and incomprehensible text.  No wonder philosophy is unpopular today, if anybody believes you should have to suffer to enjoy it!  I'm here to spread the happy news that you should not have to suffer to enjoy it.

The third, and probably most pernicious misconception about philosophy is that it's a practice without a purpose.  I blame the professors above for much of this bad rep -- they are required to publish regularly to keep their jobs, and so they publish a lot of articles that clearly serve no purpose, leading those who try to read the articles to give up and conclude that philosophy itself serves no purpose.  What a terrible mistake!  The reason we engage in philosophical speculation, investigation and debate is that we are trying to make important discoveries that will greatly improve our lives. And we do make these discoveries, and they do improve our lives and our societies.  It is philosophy that can save a broken marriage, or motivate a discouraged and mistreated employee to get up and quit his job, or remind a parent to spend time with his kids.  It is philosophy that inspires a wealthy person to donate all his money to a worthy charity, or inspires a government to pass laws that will improve the lives of its citizens, or inspires perplexed politicians to find a way to avoid or end a war (likewise, all too often, it is the lack of a coherent philosophy that causes a war to begin).

What do you know?  What do you see when you open your eyes?  Why do you do the things you do? Are you living your life wrong?  Do you feel good about who you are?  "The unexamined life," Socrates said, "is not worth living".  I sure wouldn't want to live it.  To be a philosopher, here is what you need: patience, focus, seriousness of purpose, honesty, openness to ideas that may seem at first glance impossible or preposterous or offensive.   Humility.  The will to work hard, and the will to follow through on your promises in pursuit of your ideals.

Forget the distractions and the petty invitations to a permanent state of negativity.  Find the source of the river.  Wrap your arms around the trunk of the tree.  What is life? What is a family? What is a country?  What is a religion? What do we do when we fall in love? Why do we hate the people we hate?  These are the questions that need answering.  Help us answer them, and you are living the philosophical life.

This article is part of the series Philosophy Weekend. The next post in the series is Philosophy Weekend: Siri Hustvedt on Desire. The previous post in the series is Philosophy Weekend: Jonathan Haidt Makes Some Sense.
17 Responses to "Philosophy Weekend: The Trunk"

by John Thiel on

I think the main purpose of philosophy is to get thought started.

by ananonymous123 on

Yeah, it's true that academia tends to create a sort of mysticism around any field they touch upon be it philosophy, physics or psychology. But, I think the problem with philosophy is more about usefulness. One reason self-help books and fake spiritual stuff are so popular is that the sorts of questions you have mentioned in the post get answered fairly quickly. This provides a sense of satisfaction to the readers that they have read something 'philosophical' and have 'transcended' the problems/issues. They think that they will be able to apply what they have read to their lives and that's what philosophy is for most people.

The actual power to think and introspect, requires patience, as you have mentioned, and strength. I don't think most of the people are comfortable asking those questions as the answers can be really distressing. So, it is actually convenient for them to pick up those books and get their answers without much thinking.

I also think that it is very important for anyone interested in philosophy to pick up those master texts by Nietzsche, Plato, Descartes, etc. These books can at least present the reader with all the dimensions of thinking philosophically. Only such books can show how deep the problem is, and what it shall take if one sets out to look for answers. This is obviously difficult because there will be no straight answer to anything and it is easy for people to run out of patience if they are not convinced with the usefulness of these books.

I heard an interesting idea today. If you concentrate on the moment to the exclusion of all else, you can slow down time.

by Subject Sigma on

Levi, this is so true. Sadly it is also not widely understood.
Especially about the "third misconception", I think many people are doing philosophy, more or less consciously, but refuse the definition.

I just wish someone could explain clearly how Jacques Derrida arrived at the conclusion that writing came before speech.

by mtmynd on

Re: "To be a philosopher, here is what you need: patience, focus, seriousness of purpose, honesty, openness to ideas that may seem at first glance impossible or preposterous or offensive. Humility. The will to work hard, and the will to follow through on your promises in pursuit of your ideals."

I must disagree, my friend, with your opinion here.

Firstly nobody becomes a 'philosopher' without an innate, inborn desire to ask... ask those perennial (6) questions that must be answered by one's curiosity - who? what? when? where? why? and how? These questions burn within the individual without any concern as to whether their soul search is that of a philosopher or an idiot. That is not, nor should it be the concern of the person whose desire to find answers to their questions that were inborn within them. It is the questions that burn within which is the only importance, not a quaint label like 'philosopher' that is quite frankly, meaningless within the journey of finding those answers that were born within... the answers that seek to unravel chiefly "who am I?" and all that entails from A thru Z and beyond.

As your quote from Socrates, ""The unexamined life is not worth living," pinpoints with great accuracy, to not have those burning questions within, those same questions that have been asked by any thinker ever since mankind asked "why are we here?" That one question is the beginning of a journey that makes (our) life worth living. One does not take the first step of that Great Journey with the label "philosopher' on their back. Indeed that word or any label we may be attached to is a barrier to fulfilling that very journey.

The other suggestions you've offered, i.e. "patience, focus, seriousness of purpose, honesty, openness to ideas that may seem at first glance impossible or preposterous or offensive... (and) humility.." are indeed important within themselves but are not these efforts clumsy intentions that interfere with the Great Journey... pebbles in the shoes, flies in eyes? Qualities such as 'patience', 'focus', seriousness' and 'honesty' that in themselves are part and parcel of the search for answers. Can one be patient without knowing exactly how this word applies to themselves? How does one focus without knowing how focusing will advance one's search? Does not any important journey begin with a sense of seriousness? And honesty... can one choose to be honest without knowing the importance of honesty within their lives? All these are, of course, more questions in that search that begins every journey of any meaning at all... and even meaningless journeys have their own insistent questions churning away within.

Use this word, "philosopher" and you suggest that few are worthy and those that feel they, too, are worthy are bogged down in the tars of formality that disallows the true freedom one has when it is simply the questions that lead the the questioner versus the dogma of the title that falsely disguises this wondrous journey of the soul and mind which inherently befits the lives of those who dare question.

by mtmynd on

Bill... may I suggest that perhaps Jacques arrived at that by understanding that to make a speech many write their thoughts first in order to create a smooth and understandable flow to their speech... the formality of talk where a subject is spoken of in detail. What think ye?

by Subject Sigma on

mtmynd, of course the inborn desire to ask is fundamental for philosophy, but maybe the patience, focus, seriousness, honesty, openness of Levi are the required tools to work on that curiosity.

For a long time I had those questions, this curiosity, but I tried to bury it, instead of facing the difficulties of patient, focused, serious research. I don't define myself as a philosopher, but I am trying to find serious answers for those questions.mNo one starts the journey with the "philosopher" label. I think possible that many real philosophers really don't know they are philosophers at all.

You correctly put the center on the question. Levi's suggested requirements, in my opinion, are not "pebbles in the shoes", "more questions"; they are, in my humble experience, tools in trying to find a little bit of an answer to the question.

I had the question in front of me, but without the tools, I was going to bury it deeper and deeper. Without the patience to begin an endless path, the focus to keep up the question and keep away distractions, the seriousness of purpose that prevents me from accepting partial answers, the honesty of refusing easy and wrong shortcuts, and the openness of mind to examine also what initially felt wrong or bad for me, the curiosity would have been buried deeper and deeper every day.

by mtmynd on

S.Sigma: "... of course the inborn desire to ask is fundamental for philosophy, but maybe the patience, focus, seriousness, honesty, openness of Levi are the required tools to work on that curiosity."

Firstly, thank you for your reply.

I did say that those qualities Levi mentioned "are indeed important within themselves" and "that in themselves are part and parcel of the search for answers." Tools are necessary for any endeavor undertaken and the long and arduous journey for answers is no different. My point was in understanding these qualities and their importance in that journey. It's far too easy to say a philosopher needs these things but it is equally important to understand that importance before fully engaging oneself in any philosophical quest. How many really know and understand such qualities as patience, focus, seriousness of purpose, honesty and openness other than one who is committed to their journey? Any journey of the seeker would already have that understanding or their journey would be meaningless, would it not? Would Levi have written that without himself already knowing them? Methinks not...

I am happy to know that you have undertaken your personal journey with those tools at hand. Your recognition of their importance was the initial step to be taken to become fully engaged as a seeker, was it not?

So, Derrida just meant the text of the mind. How bogus. Then again, maybe not. If text is digitized it becomes somewhat like the stored information in our brain, so the stored information in our brain is a kind of text, so it comes out as speech *after* it is written in our brain. Hmmm...possible enlightenment. Wow, thanks mtmynd, for speaking to me. Sometimes a word is all it takes. Did a word bring the universe into existence? There is no fear in love, for perfect love casts out fear. Speak a word to a homeless man and it could change his life. Bring the universe into our brain. Text Light. I thought all e-readers lit up at night.

by mtmynd on

Re Bill: "...so the stored information in our brain is a kind of text, so it comes out as speech *after* it is written in our brain."

not quite as I read this... rather 'speech' is written after the brain organizes the information in a palatable form ready to be delivered as speech. but yes, words are derived from experience, i.e. our senses retrieve what they are programmed to do (seeing, hearing/listening, etc) and brain translates those experiences into words in order for we hu'mans to do what we do - talk... the better we talk the more attuned we become to better talk ...a process of learning ourselves thru the efforts of others. talk is useless if there is nothing to bounce it off of, yes? one could deduce that hu'manity is one sounding board to express what we know or wish to know via questions and answers... our growth pattern towards our evolution.

Thx, Bill.

by Levi Asher on

Mtmynd, I like your explanation of the Derrida koan, though I have no idea if it's what Derrida had in mind or not. Your suggestion reminds me of William James's point that, while we believe that we run when we're scared or laugh when we find something funny, in reality, we're often scared because we run, or find something funny because we laugh.

As for your larger objection to my point, though, Mtmynd, I find it hard to believe that we have any disagreement here. Maybe you find the word "philosopher" off-putting. I certainly do not mean to suggest by my use of the word "philosopher" that "few are worthy". ALL are worthy to become philosophers. However, I think it's a fact that few take advantage of the opportunity to become philosophers. What's lacking is not the ability or the worthiness, but the inclination or the resolve.

by mtmynd on

Levi: 'I certainly do not mean to suggest by my use of the word "philosopher" that "few are worthy."'

I understand but have to wonder why or even IF there are many amongst us that find that word. "philosopher", a wee bit off-putting as if it has become a subject of those that not only think, by gawd!, but actually challenge the thoughtful!

I'm sure you'd agree that we are living thru very strange times and these times simply bow to others opinions regardless of their 'worthiness' or not... afterall we (Americans especially) have been somewhat brainwashed that everybody can say whatever they want and damn those that disagree with that 'cherished' freedom. I'm sorry to say that so many of us Americans are clueless as to what that holy word, "freedom" actually encompasses. But this is not the point of your topic and I (easily) transgress...

No, once again we disagree, not ALL are worthy to become philosophers. That's a safe path to undertake knowing damn well that not only All are not worthy but precious few will ever attain that title that holds any meaning... and I seriously doubt that our prestigious institutions of higher learning are even worthy enough to bestow that title upon the majority who attain that of 'Philosopher", amen.

I'm not attempting any condemnation here but simply recognizing our modern hu'manities shortfalls. I could spew forth many examples of why I believe this modernism is so lacking in wisdom and even any resemblance of our times that it bores me to think about it. Our higher education has duped the payees for their services by instilling teachings that appear to only mimic and rehash the words of yesteryear's philosophers both great and not so great... but it's THEIR HISTORY, man! is all that matters and who is able to repeat from memory those old timers then the award of "Philosopher" is their prize.

Despite the technological wonders of our modern world there is little to no emphasis upon the individual... that now rare hu'man who follows their heart and soul knowing that in complete reality that's all there is ... all else simply an illusion that tricks the mind into greater and greater schemes to convince that individual within they are not nearly as important as so many others at the helm of thought.

As you wrote, Levi, "As for your larger objection to my point, though, Mtmynd, I find it hard to believe that we have any disagreement here" and that I do agree. Maybe I'm confirming what you are saying with my own voice. I like it. To listen to someone speaking from mind or body, spirit or desire, has always brought me pleasure. as it is to speak what I believe.

Thx for the opportune, amigo....

by Subject Sigma on

mtmydn , you wrote:
"I am happy to know that you have undertaken your personal journey with those tools at hand. Your recognition of their importance was the initial step to be taken to become fully engaged as a seeker, was it not?"
...yes and no. My seek began without knowing the importance of those tools; as it proceeded, I became even more curious, and I started to understand that I needed the appropriate tools. When I understood I had to "sharpen my tools", the research became more fruitful, the curiosity increased even more, the "tools more proficients, and so on, in a circle.

by mtmynd on

Sigma, Re: "... the research became more fruitful, the curiosity increased even more, the 'tools more proficients', and so on, in a circle."

Sounds to me that this led you "to become fully engaged as a seeker, (did) it not?"

Continue onwards, my friend... the rewards are greatest for those who seek the deepest.

by Subject Sigma on

...I would be pretentious to define myself as "fully engaged as a seeker", the tides and waves of reality make me losing the focus and straying away sometimes, but the bearing is true... it is a never ending quest, but the search light is every time more focused. Thank you for the encouragement!

by Miguel on

Thanks for the succinct but interesting article. This is the part that I agreed with the most:

"I can never understand why a book of philosophy should be boring or difficult. Satori does not require fourteen-letter words or Greek characters or equations that look like integral calculus. I can think of no clearer sign that an alleged philosopher has a muddled message than a long, painful and incomprehensible text. No wonder philosophy is unpopular today, if anybody believes you should have to suffer to enjoy it! I'm here to spread the happy news that you should not have to suffer to enjoy it."

I've long believed that a thinker who knows what he wants to say, says it with clarity. A muddled writing is a symptom of a muddled mind. If the writing is confusing it's because his mind is confused and he doesn't know what he wants to say.

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